Built in 1942 by the Reichsbahn, its two metre thick exterior walls and three metre thick roof slabs sheltered thousands of people from air raids during the war.
After the war, being in the Soviet part of the city, it was briefly used by the Red Army as a prison and then as a warehouse for tropical fruits – in particular bananas from Cuba, lending it the name ’Banana Bunker’. (It was not destroyed after the war as many other bunkers were because of its situation in a residential area. After the fall of the wall, it was classified as a listed building.)
In the 1990s, it was the setting for illegal raves, fetish, Gabba and techno parties, and was nicknamed ‘the hardest club on earth’. This is where Berghain began. After police raids and building restrictions ended these, the Deutsches Theatre used the space to occasionally stage plays.
The building was bought by Christian Boros and his wife in 2003, who, along with architect Jens Casper, redesigned it to house his collection and build a penthouse on the roof. The process took five years and saw the removal of 450 cubic metres of concrete.
Despite the changes, walking through this artificially lighted five storey building, with its concrete walls, concrete ceilings and concrete floors, its remnants of graffiti from the 90s, ‘Rauchen Verboten’ wartime signs, and old ventilation shafts, gives you an excellent sense of its history.
The first artwork to greet the visitor is “For Whom” by Kris Martin; a three tonne church bell which stops, swings and moves back and forth over the reception area at random and in silence because the clapper has been removed.
An allusion to John Donne’s line, ‘for whom the bell tolls’, it is a reminder of mortality, death, and the original function of the building. That it is an old church bell being re-used as art in a former bunker raises questions about changing values and the relationship between spirituality and art.
Most of the art that makes up this collection comes in the form of light and room installations, but also includes abstract paintings and sculptures. At their best, these works highlight the history and the space of the rooms that they occupy. For example, a jagged sculpture by Monika Sosnowska that is awkwardly crammed into one room, and that visitors can use as a tunnel to walk through into the next room, exploits the relationship between space and emotion by creating a feeling of claustrophobia and disorientation.
Another work, by Denmark’s Elmgreen and Dragset, is a life-like dummy of a man lying in a hospital bed that looks out of the window at the hotel room opposite. When the exhibition first opened, guests occupying the hotel room, upon seeing an unmoving man lying in a former bunker, made frantic calls to the emergency services. (Now, the hotel offers a discounted rate for that room as well as signage by the window explaining that the disturbing view is a work of art.)
At their worst, the work on display is pure nonsense, but then Boros has remarked, “I collect art that I don’t understand,” so that was bound to happen. (You can read an interview with Boros at ADP.) Other artists featured include John Bock, Kitty Kraus, Henrik Oleson, Tobias Rehberger, Florian Slotawa and Sarah Lucas (who I can’t stand, but interestingly, whose work is showcased in the former toilets of the bunker…) There will be a new exhibition on from September.
Visits are only by pre-booked tours, which are available in English and in German and can be booked on the Boros Collection website. Entrance is €10.